Arment Dietrich

Crisis Communications: How Chick-fil-A Weathered the Storm

By: Arment Dietrich | December 19, 2013 | 
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Crisis Communications- How Chick-fil-A Weathered the StormBy Clay Morgan

When it comes to crisis communications, there is nothing better than being prepared.

Despite it’s recent bad publicity, Chick-fil-A may have proven itself to be one of the most prepared companies out there.

In the summer of 2012, Dan Cathy, CEO of the fast-food chicken restaurant chain, expressed his support of the biblical definition of marriage (and opposition to gay marriage) on a conservative radio talk show and in a religious publication.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act, Cathy tweeted his disappointment in the high court’s ruling.

Gay rights groups also pointed out the company financially supported organizations that stood against gay marriage. Protests were organized and the onslaught began.

The Enduring Company

There were efforts, a couple of them successful, to remove Chick-fil-A from college campuses. There were protests, rallies, and picketers. Social media exploded in an unrelenting attack on the restaurant chain.

But here’s the thing: In the midst of it all, the restaurant chain grew.

QSR Magazine, a trade publication serving the fast food industry, announced in its August 2013 edition that in 2012, Chick-fil-A rose to the number nine spot in revenue among fast food restaurants.

It surpassed KFC (with only one-third the number of locations) to become the best-selling chicken restaurant in the country, finishing at $4.62 billion in total revenue, an increase from the previous year’s $4.1 billion.

As a Christian-based company, they are closed on Sundays. Still, the average Chick-fil-A restaurant had greater sales in six days than most McDonald’s restaurants had in seven days during 2012.

It makes you wonder if there was a crisis…or if the crisis communications team just managed it expertly.

The Basics

One of the key things about Chick-fil-A is their reputation, one I think is demonstrated by my own personal experiences.

I like the food. When I was working at the newspaper, I’d visit the restaurant a couple times a week. The food quality is consistent, no matter which location you visit.

But there’s something else. Their customer service, in my opinion, far exceeds any other fast food restaurant. They greet you warmly. They thank you for your order and the ‘thanks!’ sounds genuine. And then there are two other simple words. In a video interview, Dan Cathy told the interviewer there is a 87 percent chance that if you say “thank you” to an associate, the response will be “my pleasure.” There’s something special about those words.

The restaurants overall are clean and the tables have fresh flowers. The staff checks on you – It is almost like being at a high-end restaurant. When I visit a Chick-fil-A, I feel like the staff wants to serve me and wants me to have a pleasant experience. I can’t always say that for other more popular fast-food restaurants.

Other Activists

When Cathy made his controversial marriage statements, gay-rights activists planned boycotts. Students voted to remove Chick-fil-A from campuses. But they weren’t the only ones who entered the fray.

Brand supporters, including conservatives and Christian groups, organized an appreciation day. According to ABC News, as many as 605,000 people may have participated in the appreciation day. Estimates are that the average restaurant experienced a 29 percent increase in same-day sales.

Their supporters were vocal. Mike Huckabee, Sarah Palin, and others spoke out in support of the chain during the controversy. Even the American Civil Liberties Union and Mike Bloomberg, while not endorsing Cathy’s comments, did defend his right to say them.

Crisis Communications: What Can We Learn?

The Chick-fil-A crisis communications plan started long before the controversy ever erupted and didn’t look like a plan most of us would develop.

Here is what we can learn:

  1. Have company values. Chick-fil-A has a strong set of company values that range from traditional faith to firm ideas about customer service. Not everyone agrees with them, but a lot of people strongly identify with them, which increases their loyalty to the brand.
  2. Give your clients and customers a tremendous experience. This is customer service at its core. As a Chick-fil-A customer, they exceed my expectations every, single time I go in to the restaurant. It is ingrained into the very culture of the company and should be in yours too. Customers treated exceptionally well are far more likely to weather a storm with you.
  3. Cultivate brand ambassadors with influencers. As soon as the controversy erupted, conservative leaders such as Mike Huckabee, Ann Coulter, Rick Santorum, and Sarah Palin rushed to the company’s defense. Regardless of politics, they have a lot of influence over very large populations, and they had a lot to do with the hugely successful appreciation day.

Engage

A little talk can go a long way. Cathy engaged his accusers. He made some changes in the company’s giving, but he also talked to those who had a problem with his statements.

In particular, ABC News reported the CEO and Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, engaged in conversations at the height of the controversy. Windmeyer expressed that the two have become friends, despite their opposing views on gay marriage.

They may not be changing each other’s minds, but they seem, based on comments in the article, to understand one another.

While the company did engage a crisis communications plan in the traditional sense, it was what they did before, as part of their basic culture, that made the difference when the chicken coop got kicked.

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106 Comments on "Crisis Communications: How Chick-fil-A Weathered the Storm"

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ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago
When I was reading your post earlier this week and felt my face getting hot. I realized it wasn’t because of the fact that communications crisis didn’t hurt their sales, it’s because I don’t agree with their politics. So I took a step back and thought, “This is about communications, Gini.”  Of course, I want companies to fail when they have big crises like this…it helps prove our case that every company needs a plan and to be prepared in times of criticism. BUT, they did have a plan. They followed their values. They didn’t stray from their message. They… Read more »
belllindsay
2 years 5 months ago
Way to steal what I was gonna say, Gini!! LOL I loved this post – precisely because Clay took what was (is) for many a VERY uncomfortable political stance, turned it around, and highlighted the positive practices that CFA did in order to weather their particular storm. I don’t agree with their politics either, but I was very surprised to read about their sales, etc., and how their community supported them. It might not be my kinda community, but they still did what “community” is supposed to do – and heck, let’s face it, the world would be pretty boring… Read more »
ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

ginidietrich As I told my wife, and perhaps you, the very way they do business (and you can argue that perhaps it is because of the owning family’s values, or not?) is their crisis plan.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

belllindsay It was interesting to watch the thing unfold.

At the paper, the “support day” rally was insane. Cars were lined up out the parking lot and down the street. This is a company that has developed tremendous customer loyalty.

Any bets A&E takes a hit for suspending Phil from Duck Dynasty yesterday?

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

belllindsay Early bird gets the worm!

ginidietrich
2 years 5 months ago

ClayMorgan Yep. I may not agree with it, but they have a loyal following who do.

belllindsay
2 years 5 months ago

ClayMorgan I’ve already seen lots of negative comments, etc., regarding his “suspension”, but from what I heard, his comments were beyond derogatory. I really can’t see any other way that the network could have handles it.

jasonkonopinski
2 years 5 months ago
Second verse, same as the first:  The politics of the organization certainly doesn’t align with my own, but the way they handled the crisis was certainly something to behold. We were on vacation with Lisa’s family during the Support Day rallies.  Every Chik-Fil-A restaurant in the region had lines wrapping around the block building and out into the street for miles (this was a fairly conservative part of Western NC, so the values overlapped significantly).  And speaking as a consumer first and a communications professional second, I *want* companies and their leaders to openly express their values on things. It… Read more »
ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago
jasonkonopinski Where does one draw the line in corporations taking a stand? And does one separate the beliefs of the CEO and the corporate values? As for A&E, I believe they are trying to weather a storm as they are stuck between their top show with a loyal following and a second but no less important demographic. They are the number one cable network (or were in the Spring) with 90 million viewers, 10 percent of which watch Duck Dynasty. I’m personally not a big A&E viewer, but I do occasionally watch Duck Dynasty and my wife and I love to… Read more »
Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago
It’s funny I told ginidietrichthat this stuff never hurts anyone. All the big social media hoopla-la’s and gaffes and in the end business is fine. Just put your head in the sand. But I am told a book is coming out to prove me wrong LOL As for Chick-fil-A I actually stopped patronizing in 1993 when I worked as a waiter near a mall in LA. I saw the food court location would be closed on Sundays and when I learned they did it for religious reasons being in my early 20’s ‘why would anyone pick religion over capitalism’ stage… Read more »
Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago
ClayMorganjasonkonopinskireally good questions Clay. I think public companies have to be impartial. The CEO isn’t the Owner. And in all cases best to stay quiet on social issues and often business issues. I started attacking Holly Hobby on Twitter after they had a problem with women getting contraception coverage through their insurance. Personally I am against cancer treatment because of my religion so can I offer insurance that omits that? So best I don’t know because I do vote with my money. That said we all spend tons of money at places that we are clueless what their position is.… Read more »
jasonkonopinski
2 years 5 months ago
ClayMorgan That’s a tricky question to answer, but a very important one.  When it comes to family-owned companies like Chik-Fil-A, it’s a little easier. But then there’s CEOs like Howard Schultz of Starbucks who plays the role of the political activist often, and it doesn’t appear that the board and shareholders object to his stance on gun control, marriage equality, and a host of other issues.   At some point, it becomes a slippery slope. There isn’t a company in the world that *exactly* mirrors my political views, and I’m also not so bold to think that I’m not influenced heavily by convenience.… Read more »
ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

Howie Goldfarb jasonkonopinski I too vote with my money and when the values are known to me, I do try to support companies that share my values – AS LONG as the quality product is there.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

jasonkonopinski Yea, that Polynesian sauce is pretty good.

jasonkonopinski
2 years 5 months ago

ClayMorgan That’s all you have to say? Harumph. 😉

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

jasonkonopinski LOL. What do you want me to say?

I don’t go to Starbucks, not because of their owners views, but because they sell way overpriced flavored water.

But when a company is family-owned, I think you can expect the family values to be far more infused in the corporate psyche.

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

jasonkonopinski I learned this morning that Duck Dynasty is not at ALL what I thought it was about. I expected cute animated ducks and instead it’s ZZ Top?

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

It seems a big part of this is a company’s initial popularity. Chick-fil-A is widely lauded for its food by country folk and urban hipsters alike. And I think the number of people who boycott a company over its political views is a small sliver of the population.
I recall the Dominos boycotts from ages ago—they seem to be doing fine. (And I’m one of those people who has a long list of companies I won’t do business with for various reasons.)
I believe the Coors boycott hurt them some, but I think only around the margins. Barilla pasta? Papa John’s? Etc.

SpinSucks
SpinSucks
2 years 5 months ago

MartinaPQuinn I thought it was good, too. Makes you think. ^gd

MartinaPQuinn
MartinaPQuinn
2 years 5 months ago

SpinSucks For sure! Thanks for sharing it!

jasonkonopinski
2 years 5 months ago

RobBiesenbach Ha! That family is worth a pile of cash from the duck call business. 😀

FranchiseKing
2 years 5 months ago
Hi Clay, I cannot stand companies that broadcast their religious affiliations. Business and religion should be as separate as church and state I don’t want to know what your religious belief are. I just want to purchase a good product or service from you…if I choose to. Their “franchise” is not a franchise.  They “award” franchises to people that will commit to following Christian values. Period. And, their franchises only cost $5,000. That’s why they receive over 50,000 applications a year. “Franchisees” are not allowed to own any other businesses and cannot pass down or transfer rights to other family… Read more »
RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

jasonkonopinski As is ZZ Top, my friend!

Word Ninja
2 years 5 months ago

Clay, you did an amazing job of writing this post. And I appreciate also that those here, whether they agree or disagree with Cathy’s comments or anything else, answer honestly, civilly, and with a focus on the point of the article. 

Btw, talk about some customer service…I heard when the Chick-fil-A in my city ran out of food during the “appreciation day” you mentioned, they ordered pizza for the hundreds of people gathered there.

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

I count a half-dozen “I thinks” and “I believes” in this post of mine. Clearly I have no data, but that doesn’t mean I’m not right!

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

RobBiesenbach Many companies can survive them, if they have strong leadership, good products, good service and excellent crisis plans. If we look, we can probably find plenty of bodies too.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

FranchiseKing This is what makes America great.

If given a choice between two companies that are pretty much equal in quality, I will try to support the company that has Christian values.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

Word Ninja Customer service is one thing they do well. If you walk in the door their staff, in my experience, does try to take care of you.

They aren’t the only chain like that of course, but I think it helped them throughout he crisis.

Rieva
Rieva
2 years 5 months ago

Sorry, I’m withHowie Goldfarb and FranchiseKing King. They didn’t weather the storm because of their communications plan. They weathered it because there’s still a sizable number of Americans who share their bigoted views. 

There are 3 Chick-fil-A’s within 5 miles of my house. We used to drive thru once a week at least  (I’m not a GiniDietrich-level cook). Haven’t been since the controversy originally broke out. 

And values are apparently in the eye of the beholder. Their actions might reflect their values and yours ClayMorgan, but they sure don’t reflect mine.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

Rieva HowieGoldfarb FranchiseKing ClayMorgan 

As I mentioned to FranchiseKing, we are all entitled to support whom we want and for whatever reasons we wish. The opposite is true as well.

Rieva
Rieva
2 years 5 months ago

ClayMorgan Rieva HowieGoldfarb FranchiseKing This isn’t the place to debate that.

Matt_Cerms
2 years 5 months ago

Don’t waver from what you stand for, make a dynamite product, and continue to make the customer feel like a rock star. Boom.

Carol Cool
Carol Cool
2 years 5 months ago

One other step they took, in some areas, was on the protest/boycott day, which I believe was the following Saturday, the managers served free lemonade to the protesters outside, and some even gave them free chicken sandwiches. That is a great crisis communication move if you look at all the press they got for it. (And falls right in with their Christian values from the sermon on the mount: “do good to those who hate you.”)

Joshua Wilner/A Writer Writes
2 years 5 months ago

Howie Goldfarb In-N-Out killed me with the religious verse on the wrappers and soda, but I kept eating there for a long time because i loved the food and it was affordable.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

Matt_Cerms It is a good strategy and has worked for a lot of companies.

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

Carol Cool I did not know that.

Is that a classy move or an “in your face move” or a little of both?

belllindsay
2 years 5 months ago
Coming from the land of Pierre Trudeau’s 1967 (!!) Omnibus Bill and his famous quote: “There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” – I find it difficult to believe we’re still having this conversation. But, that said, if you believe in the “right” for YOU to hold certain beliefs and have certain freedoms, you have to also believe in the right for OTHERS to have their own beliefs. You also have the right to disagree, and choose to protest with your wallet.  Sure, some people’s viewpoints can make me angry, or make me shake my head at… Read more »
RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

Rieva HowieGoldfarb FranchiseKing ClayMorgan Again, I think they survived it because they have a popular, tasty product. The “bigot” demo is not a mass-market audience.
Just the other day I was downtown (Chicago) and the Chick-fil-A just off Michigan Avenue was packed tight with all sorts of folks. Most people just aren’t that political. Even if they’re aware of the controversy they’re not going to change their habits significantly.

RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

ClayMorgan That’s the thing: I’ve been racking my brain and can’t think of any companies that were truly done in by a CEO either shooting off his mouth or a company deliberately engaging in controversial political activity
Many companies have taken a PR hit and maybe a short-term sales hit—Barilla, Lululemon, Hobby Lobby, Dominos, Coors, etc. But long-damage?

Danny Brown
2 years 5 months ago
I think a large part comes down to the religious beliefs of companies involved. It’s no coincidence that both Chick-fil-A and the Duck Dynasty guy made statements based on their religious beliefs. Now, whether you agree with these statements or not, you have to respect the right that if you demand retractions, boycotts, etc., you are demanding that person retract the religious belief(s) they’ve grown up with. Didn’t Kuwait get invaded to protect religious belief? Didn’t Europe stand up to Hitler to defend religious belief? Didn’t Gandhi take a non-violent stand to defend religious belief (and free a nation at… Read more »
RobBiesenbach
2 years 5 months ago

Danny Brown Not to get too off track, but the Duck Dynasty guy was saying some truly repulsive stuff that goes beyond religious beliefs. Like that black people were better off and happier under slavery.

MikeSchaffer
2 years 5 months ago

What happened to the days where if somebody said something we didn’t like, we muttered under our breath, “what an a-hole?” and went about our day?

stevesonn
stevesonn
2 years 5 months ago

Thanks for this interesting post ClayMorgan. It’s important to note the type of crisis it was: one of a viewpoint. A crisis surrounding a brand’s products or services is often much more threatening. Even among Chick-fil-A’s detractors, there is general agreement that they have a great product and great service. The brand has done a good job of focusing on what it does best, and getting the word out about it.

susancellura
susancellura
2 years 5 months ago

I like this post ClayMorgan. The point of it is to have a crisis communication plan in place. And then, ensure people know it backwards and forwards. And then, practice it before an issue actually arises. We used to do that at a chemical company I worked for back in the day, for obvious reasons.

Danny Brown
2 years 5 months ago
RobBiesenbach I haven’t read/watched the interview, so not aware of the full comments he made. And yes, that’s repulsive no matter your religious belief (though I’d say that’s down to his assumed racism versus religious beliefs). I used his statement regarding homosexuality as it was tied into the points Clay uses for Cathay and his company. There are a lot of religious folks in the U.S., and they don’t let that religion take a side stand to anything. I was reading through a Facebook discussion last night about the Duck Dynasty guy, and the overriding majority were in his favour, saying… Read more »
biggreenpen
2 years 5 months ago
Interesting perspective, Clay. I am intentionally not reading everyone else’s comments because I want to say what I think first (but I am looking forward to seeing everyone else’s thoughts afterwards). I also, just an hour ago, read the Shane Windmeyer-related piece, which I found interesting. After all of the furor around Cathy’s comments a while back, I have been a much less frequent CFA visitor. I do find their customer service downright incredible and that’s surely in short supply these days. I’ve developed reservations about their ingredients (I’ll spare everyone the long list but the “anti foaming agents” for… Read more »
Howie Goldfarb
2 years 5 months ago

Danny BrownI mentioned voting with my wallet. I can handle Chick-fil-A more so than the businesses choosing and deciding type of healthcare they get through them. Chick-fil-A has gay workers. And to my knowledge never told workers in states with gay marriage that they can’t marry.

So I agree Danny I don’t object to their right and freedom to their own views and religion even if I don’t agree with them.

What I am curious about was if the political donations were personal or from the company.

belllindsay
2 years 5 months ago

Danny Brown RobBiesenbach Are you writing another book, Danny….? (jokes – great comments)

ClayMorgan
2 years 5 months ago

Danny Brown Great points on respecting other views.

The simple fact for Chick-fil-A and probably for Duck Dynasty, is the two brands have something very strong happening and they (or that) is much more than the religious beliefs of their leadership.

Rieva
Rieva
2 years 5 months ago

RobBiesenbach Danny Brown That’s not off track. That is exactly the track. We can couch a lot of prejudice and bigotry by citing religious beliefs. But I thought one FUNDAMENTAL part of those beliefs  was “judge not lest ye be judged.”

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